In Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, his first adventure, our fearless boy reporter and his waggish companion find themselves seeking refuge in a log cabin in a frozen waste. The cabin is haunted; something about its clock striking 13 and ghostly wailing fails to convince Tintin. The noise is coming from a gramophone under a false floor. Descending a ladder, he is ambushed. "Where am I?" he asks a mean-eyed, cigar-puffing Bolshevik. "You're in the underground hideout," the Bolshevik tells him, "where Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin have collected together the wealth stolen from the people... if by chance a peasant wandered into the haunted room which covers the entrance to our vaults, he'd be far too scared to pursue his investigations."
Ninety years on, enter that wanderer: not a peasant but the experienced former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times, Catherine Belton, who has not been scared to explore deep into the recent history of those still extant money vaults. In the process, as she recounts in her relentless and magnificently detailed Putin's People, she has uncovered an increasingly repressive, violent and greedy autarchy, sustained by black money and inscribing Vladimir Putin's name way ahead of those of his Communist predecessors.
Many of the money vaults are, of course, abroad. By funnelling capital abroad year after year - hundreds of millions of dollars here, billions there - that is controlled by Russians who owe their fortunes to Putin and whose loyalty he entirely directs, Russia's president has created numberless reservoirs of untraceable money that as instruments of foreign policy are far more usable than nuclear weapons to destabilise his rivals.
In all this, the ubiquity of the siloviki, the securocrats or "men of force" of the KGB, now FSB, is central. Once, under Soviet communism, it was a boring fact of life that the KGB and the Vory - organised crime - lived hand in glove. As the Soviet Union collapsed economically, Russia's mafia and rising oligarchs fought savagely for wealth, sometimes finding an accommodation in a painfully democratising Russia. In 2000 came Putin, the spy candidate who had started his KGB career managing operatives in Dresden (a salutary story in itself) and advanced through the mafia-ridden violence of St Petersburg in the 1990s. Anointed by Boris Yeltsin, and elected in May 2000, at his inauguration, Putin spoke of his "holy duty to unite the people of Russia".
Within months the new president began reorganising strategic cash flows so that, by various Kremlin-enabled routes, they diverted into the hands of KGB comrades. In 2003, starting a pattern, he arrested and imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest businessman.
By the time the president's "little green men", his deniable troops without insignia, invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine a decade later, the siloviki had become a state within a state. They owned everything; which is to say Putin owned everything, in the sense of being able to deploy the entire economy in line with his wishes. Sergei Pugachev, a confidant and grey eminence of the early Putin years, who lives in exile in France, says now "there is only Putin and his lieutenants who carry out his orders. All cash generated is put on the balance of Putin. The country is in a state of war."
We - the EU, UK and USA - are chief enemies of Putin's resurgent Russia. Belton makes this clear, exposing how we have colluded, largely for reasons of our own greed, in Putin's manipulation of all the theatres of geopolitics. There has been more than $800bn of estimated capital flight since the Soviet collapse, "more than the wealth held by the entire Russian population in the country itself". The West's so-called light-touch regulation has helped open the way for a web of secret black cash used as "a mechanism for authoritarian control at home, and for undermining institutions in the West".
In the prescient Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin's last brush with the USSR's secret police is with a Bolshevik sent to blow up the capitals of Europe. Putin's game today, according to Belton, is not very different: to detonate the cities and nations of the West in slow motion.
In Britain, London's bankers jostle round Russian wealth in search of fees; British lords are paid £500,000 a year to sit on the boards of Russian companies over whose activities they have little oversight; the pro-Brexit Conservative Party is delighted by extravagant Russian donations. Even the supposedly innocent extravagance of a wealthy tycoon named Abramovich buying Chelsea FC may have been ordered by Putin to build a beachhead for Russian influence in the UK. In continental Europe, Putin backs far-left and far-right parties without favour. In the US, his associates have helped elect a president who is every KGB man's dream.
Where does this manipulation leave the president himself? For now he remains Russia's self-chosen tsar, a role he relishes, but with the same problem as a mafia boss: he cannot retire. That is why he has set in train changes to the Russian constitution to allow him to remain in power until at least 2036. Exactly where he - and we - will be then is hard to say.
What we can say for certain is that his writ, thanks to black cash, already runs far too disruptively around the globe for the West's, or the world's, comfort. We would do well not to be humouring in any way a leader whose international conduct is now a combination of Robert Mugabe plus the Joker, with a nuclear arsenal.
So Putin's People is a serious, absolutely timely warning. No book has documented the Russian president's leadership so indefatigably and compellingly. If you want to grasp in full how Russia has become the nation it has in the last 20 years, this is the book you've been waiting for. I just hope Belton has a cheerful, highly intelligent fox terrier looking out for her.
© The Telegraph